Ever since people started referring to the financial crisis as a "credit crunch," you've known that your own personal credit could dry up at a moment's notice. Unfortunately, it looks like that moment has come -- and you need to start thinking about what to do to protect yourself.
Here are some tips to help you handle what you may experience in 2009:
1. Be ready for your bank to fail
The troubles of financial institutions that extend huge amounts of credit via credit cards, home mortgages, and other types of personal loans have dominated the headlines throughout the past two years. Thus far this year, 17 banks have failed, an even faster pace than the 25 that closed during all of 2008. Huge institutions have disappeared, with the remains of Washington Mutual integrated into JPMorgan Chase
Your deposits at an FDIC-insured bank are covered up to $250,000. But what happens to your loans? That depends on what kind of loan you have. Mortgages and other installment loans with definite contractual terms should stay exactly the same -- you'll keep paying them off the same you always have.
But with revolving credit -- which includes credit cards and lines of credit -- you may not be able to count on keeping the same rates the failed bank gave you. Most loan agreements on such loans give the bank great flexibility in changing terms and conditions, so you could find yourself seeing higher rates or increased minimum payments as a result.
The best solution is to diversify your loans across a number of institutions, so that no one bank failure has too large an impact on your finances. That way, even if one bank fails on you, you won't have to replace your entire loan portfolio all at once.
2. Beware of shrinking credit card limits
We've reported recently about the big increase in charge-offs that major credit card issuers like Capital One
How that affects you depends greatly on your own personal situation. If you shy away from carrying a balance on your credit cards and have good credit generally, then odds are good that you've never gotten close to using your entire credit limit. On the other hand, those who are struggling financially couldn't pick a worse time to see one of their last lifelines taken away from them.
The best way to prepare for lower credit limits is to pay down your debt. But if that's simply not an option for you right now, you may want to look for alternatives to your existing credit sources. That way, you'll have excess credit available if one or more of your current lenders cuts you off.
3. Try to take advantage of low mortgage rates
The latest news from the Federal Reserve sparked a huge rally Wednesday. The government plans to spend more than $1 trillion to push long-term interest rates lower. Because the plan includes direct purchases of mortgage securities, you can expect already low mortgage rates to fall further. That's bittersweet news for homeowners who are underwater on their current loans, since refinancing could become difficult if not impossible.
But if you're in the market to buy a home, it's a great time. Homebuilders like Pulte Homes
And if you can refinance, you should. Low rates could save you hundreds of dollars each month for the next 30 years -- a bonanza you can't afford to miss.
Do it now
It's always smart to protect your credit, but when times are tough and credit is tight, you need to stay competitive. Get your credit as strong as you can, and the odds will be much better that you'll be able to use it when you really need it.
For more surviving the financial crisis, read about:
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has done his best to keep his credit good. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express and Discover Financial Services are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. The Fool owns shares of American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy gives you our best protection.